Letter VII (Letter seven)
Oliver Cowdery wrote about Cumorah in "Letter VII," the seventh of a series of eight essays he wrote about the early history of the Church. These essays responded to claims by critics, but also provided Church members (and nonmembers) with detailed information about the early days of the Restoration. In Letter VII, Oliver stated it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place near the hill where Joseph found the plates--the Hill Cumorah.
You can read Letter VII right in Joseph Smith's own history at this link to the Joseph Smith Papers:
Some scholars who have faith in the Book of Mormon nevertheless also believe that Oliver Cowdery was wrong when he wrote about Cumorah. They claim the "real" Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is somewhere in southern Mexico.
An article in BYU Studies is a good example of the problem that results when scholars reject what Oliver wrote.
For many years, BYU Studies had its thumb pressed firmly on M2C (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory of Book of Mormon Geography). The journal published a steady stream of articles that take M2C for granted.
This is no surprise, given that the long-time editor of BYU Studies has been an adamant proponent of M2C for decades. He co-founded Book of Mormon Central, which promotes M2C exclusively as the only acceptable interpretation of the text. The very logo of Book of Mormon Central precludes the possibility of any setting other than Mesoamerica.
The BYU Studies web page continues to feature the full depiction of M2C with no mention of alternatives, such as this map of "Plausible Locations of the Final Battles."
BYU Studies depicts the "real" Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 in southern Mexico, following the lead of RLDS scholar L.E. Hills' 1917 map that set out M2C.
(click to enlarge)
Here's the explanation of the map: "The hill Ramah/Cumorah, upon which both the Jaredites and Nephites fought their last battles (see Ether 15:11; Mormon 6:4–6), is shown here on the northwestern edge of the Tuxtla Mountains in Mexico, about ninety miles from a narrow pass (see Mormon 3:5). Other Jaredite locations, including Omer’s flight to Ramah (see Ether 9:3), are also shown here."
This map is part of a series of charts, all teaching M2C by proposing what is "plausible," implying alternatives (such as the New York Cumorah) are not plausible.
159 – Plausible Locations of the Final Battles
160 – Plausible Locations in Mesoamerica for Book of Mormon Places
162 – Archaeological Sites in Mesoamerica
No other interpretations of the text are offered by BYU Studies.in this section on "Book of Mormon Lessons and Charts." Every Latter-day Saint who consults BYU Studies for personal study, help in preparing lessons, etc., is presented with M2C as the only acceptable interpretation.
M2C is the de facto orthodox belief, and you can be accused of apostasy for rejecting M2C (as my critics regularly accuse me).
And, of course, the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah are never mentioned. Readers are assaulted with a steady stream of academic speculation instead.
A more recent issue of BYU Studies includes an article on Book of Mormon Geographies by Andrew H. Hedges, a long-time contributor and BYU Faculty member. He's a great guy, excellent scholar, and has offered some resistance to M2C in the past. For a member of the citation cartel, he's probably the best choice for writing this article. But he's definitely a "safe" choice for M2C.
Following the M2C citation cartel's pattern, in this article he cites himself (twice) and the usual suspects, including John L. Sorenson (4 citations), David Palmer (twice), John W. Welch, John E. Clark.
Unintentionally emphasizing the cartel nature of the M2C proponents, he writes, "Sorenson, Palmer, and other proponents of a Mesoamerican geography have generally made their case in peer-reviewed journals and academic presentations, where they have directed their research toward university-trained specialists in history, archaeology, and anthropology."
The "peer-reviewed journals" consist of BYU Studies, the old FARMS journals and their latest incarnation, the Interpreter, the Maxwell Institute, and lately Book of Mormon Central. The "peer approval" conducted by these journals is mostly a sham because the process consists of "peer approval" by like-minded proponents of M2C to assure compliance with the M2C orthodoxy. The journals themselves have interlocking editorial input. (The exception may be the latest incarnation of the Maxwell Institute, which at least tries to remain somewhat objective.)
This article is a prime example of the M2C bias. Had it been reviewed by anyone actually familiar with the Heartland models, it would have provided a far more balanced and informative explanation.
To be sure, Sorenson, Welch, Clark and others have also published outside the M2C citation cartel, but not on their M2C theories. No "outside" archaeologist or expert in Mesoamerican studies gives credence to the Book of Mormon as a description of Mesoamerican culture, anthropology, or archaeology. M2C thrives only inside its own bubble, a completely inside game.
Let's look at how the article frames the discussion.
First, the article appropriately distinguishes between known locations in the Old World (e.g., Jerusalem) and unknown locations in the New World. So far, so good.
But then it says this:
"The only firm link between a specific location on the ground today and the Book of Mormon is the stack of plates Joseph Smith obtained from the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York. At best, such a link tells us only where Moroni, the ancient Nephite prophet who buried the plates, spent some time at some point after his people had been destroyed. It tells us very little, however, about where he or his people had been prior to that."
The logical fallacy here should be obvious, but the author (and the editors) skipped right over it. Some might say this was intentional. I prefer to think it was merely a result of groupthink. The citation cartel doesn't even realize how deeply embedded their M2C mindset is (the same reason why Saints, Volume 1, portrays a false historical narrative present by misrepresenting what early Saints knew about Cumorah).
Obviously a survey article cannot get into a lot of detail, but that doesn't excuse misleading readers with statements such as this about "the only firm link." Another footnote or two could have given readers at least an opportunity to become more fully and accurately informed.
We will spend a moment on this point because it exemplifies the editorial bias of BYU Studies that continues to misled and misinform Latter-day Saints.
The "only firm link" claimed by the article consists of statements made by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery about where Joseph found the plates. No third party observed Joseph obtain the plates. The text itself does not mention a location in modern terms. The stone box containing the plates is not extant. No one other than Joseph and Oliver described detailed personal knowledge of where Joseph obtained the plates.
Yet the article ignores (and explicitly downplays) what Joseph and Oliver actually told us, which is far more than the location of the plates.
In 1842, Joseph sent a letter to the actual editor of the Times and Seasons, which published the letter in September. The letter, now canonized as D&C 128, includes verse 20:
And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20)
Joseph's shorthand reference to Cumorah is obscure to most Latter-day Saints today because the New York Cumorah has been de-correlated in recent years. But readers in 1842 knew exactly what and where Cumorah was because the year before, in 1841, the Times and Seasons published a specific description of Cumorah. It was a republication of what is known today as Letter VII.
Key point: until Letter VII was published, the location and significance of Cumorah was well-known but undocumented.
Joseph's mother Lucy Mack Smith explained that Moroni told Joseph "the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place" (identifying the ancient name during his first encounter with Joseph), but a three-mile radius leaves lots of possible locations. Joseph wrote that "he revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold" but he didn't describe the location in more detail. Lucy reported that in early 1827, before he got the plates, Joseph met the angel when coming home from Manchester "as I passed by the hill of Cumorah, where the plates are." This narrowed the possible locations, but there are several hills in the area. Obviously, Joseph's family knew which one was Cumorah because Joseph referred to it by name without further description, but outside of his family, no one knew either the name or specific location until much later.
We know exactly where Joseph found the plates only because Oliver described the location in detail in Letter VII.
Letter VII was one of a series of 8 essays on early Church history originally published as letters in the Messenger and Advocate (18/34-5). Oliver wrote them with the assistance of Joseph Smith. Joseph had them copied into his journal as part of his life history where we can read them in the Joseph Smith Papers. https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/48
Joseph approved their republication in the Times and Seasons and Gospel Reflector, both in 1841. The letters were republished as well in the Millennial Star (1841) and in The Prophet (1844), as well as in a special pamphlet in England that sold thousands of copies (1844).
In Letter VII, Oliver described Cumorah in detail.
You are acquainted with the mail road from Palmyra, Wayne Co. to Canandaigua, Ontario Co. N.Y. and also, as you pass from the former to the latter place, before arriving at the little village of Manchester, say from three to four, or about four miles from Palmyra, you pass a large hill on the east side of the road. Why I say large, is because it is as large perhaps, as any in that country. To a person acquainted with this road, a description would be unnecessary, as it is the largest and rises the highest of any on that rout. The north end rises quite sudden until it assumes a level with the more southerly extremity, and I think I may say an elevation higher than at the south a short distance, say half or three fourths of a mile. As you pass toward canandaigua it lessens gradually until the surface assumes its common level, or is broken by other smaller hills or ridges, water courses and ravines. I think I am justified in saying that this is the highest hill for some distance round, and I am certain that its appearance, as it rises so suddenly from a plain on the north, must attract the notice of the traveller as he passes by.
At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.
The last sentence, bolded here, explains why few living Latter-day Saints know anything about Letter VII. If you poll Latter-day Saints about how we know where Joseph found the plates, approximately zero can tell you because Letter VII has been suppressed by the M2C citation cartel.
And this article, while mentioning "the only firm link," doesn't tell us the source of that firm link.
To its credit, this article does cite Letter VII. But look how dismissive the reference is, without acknowledging that "the only firm link" is Letter VII itself.
A letter written the same year by Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps similarly identifies a North American setting for at least some of what happened in the Book of Mormon—in this case, New York’s Hill Cumorah, where Smith reportedly found the gold plates, as the site of the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites.6
An uninformed reader will see this glancing reference as a minor detail found in an obscure "letter" written "by Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps." There are many current Church leaders who know nothing more about Letter VII than this, and they won't be informed by this article or anything else BYU Studies publishes.
In a sense, the article relates an accurate statement. Oliver did write a letter to Phelps. But that's misrepresentation by omission because casual readers don't understand that this was President Oliver Cowdery, a member of the First Presidency, writing facts with the assistance of Joseph Smith to refute the anti-Mormon claims that the Book of Mormon was mere fiction. The "letter" was published in the official Church newspaper, and, as mentioned above, copied into Joseph's own history and repeatedly republished in official Church publications.
It was anything but mere private correspondence.
Not only was Letter VII written by a member of the First Presidency and approved by the rest of the First Presidency (Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams), but it has been reiterated by every prophet and apostle who has ever formally addressed the topic, including members of the Firs Presidency speaking in General Conference.
But readers of BYU Studies know none of this, and this article doesn't help by dismissing Letter VII as merely "a letter."
Once we realize that "the only firm link" is Letter VII, there is no excuse for omitting--let alone rejecting--the rest of what Letter VII tells us.
To those of us who accept the teachings of the prophets, Letter VII (and the subsequent teachings of the prophets reaffirming it) renders moot all discussion of Cumorah that proposes a location other than New York.
Any legitimate discussion of Book of Mormon geography would make this point crystal clear. But this article does the opposite by derisively mentioning it in passing before devoting the bulk of the discussion (and citations) to M2C.
No one has to accept Letter VII and the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. Plenty of LDS scholars have provided plenty of rationales for rejecting these teachings, with great success. We're all free to believe whatever we want.
But BYU Studies and the rest of the M2C citation cartel continue to obfuscate the issue and deprive readers of the ability to make informed decisions.
We'll discuss more aspects of the article in future posts, but here let's consider a few more details about Oliver's essays on Church history.
Part of Letter I has been canonized in the Pearl of Great Price as the note to JS-H 1:71.
Additional information from these essays:
Letter IV explains that Moroni told Joseph the records "were written and deposited not far from" Joseph's home. Thus, Mormon and Moroni spent enough time in the vicinity to write the record.
Letter VIII describes in detail the location and construction of the stone box that contained the plates.
BYU Studies and Cumorah
An article in BYU Studies, 60:3 (2021), discusses "Book of Mormon Geographies."
We can assume the editors thought they were being even-handed, maybe even objective, when they published articles about Book of Mormon geography and the translation. We welcome and want to encourage this direction toward more diversity and openness, but as we'll see, the implicit bias remains entrenched.